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FATHER VICTOR VAN BORTEL, S.J. 1926 – 2010

Posted on: 1 Dec, 2014

Modified on: 1 Dec, 2014

By Fr. Jos De Cuyper, S.J.

Father Victor was born at Wilrijk near Antwerp in Belgium on Jan 29, 1926 in a fervent Christian family. He had three brothers and four sisters, one sister was a religious. The entire family cultivated vegetables, especially tomatoes, for the market of Antwerp. Here Vic learned farming, something that would stand him in good stead soon in life. After primary schooling locally, he went in 1941 to the Jesuit College in Antwerp. He entered the Society of Jesus at Drongen in 1946. He did his Indian Juniorate at La Pairelle near Namur followed by philosophy first at Louvain and then completed at Kandy in Sri Lanka. Regency at Kunkuri was followed by a year language in Ranchi. He studied theology at Pune where he was ordained on March 10, 1959. After three places rather brief assignments as assistant parish priest at Samlong, Noatoli and Ranchi Cathedral, he launched his life work in November 1969. With some 40 boys he moved to a haunted house in Samlong. After a second Christmas celebration he moved on January 01, 1971 to the present site of Kishor Nagar in Namkum. Soon the family grew to above 800. Benefactors chiefly from Belgium helped him realize his dream, funding the buildings and securing daily needs. Extensive fields surround the campus, originally bought to have the Jesuit Theologate planned to move from Kurseong but ultimately settled in Delhi. Here agriculture has been a boon to complement the material needs of the large family. Together with a large dairy farm Father Victor showed himself a very effective farmer and manager. His primary task however was that of an educationist and above all a loving father of his boys.

Let us briefly highlight three prominent qualities of this apparently simple Jesuit, yet of a truly great stature as the man who gave the Ranchi Province the important dimension of dedication to the neglected youth of Jharkhand.

First comes his lifelong love and care for his young family of needy boys. They were orphans, a number of them from homes of the Missionaries of Charity, poverty stricken boys and a number from broken homes – all in need of a dignified education to enter society. Admission times were a trial for Victor. From hundred of applications he had to select the most needy ones. In that large family of Kishor Nagar Vic as we call him – was an understanding father of boys belonging to any religion. It is striking that for all those years there never has been any revolt. He had the gift of understanding and a special psychological insight in each of them. He knew each by name with his family background. He addressed the daily, telling them of personal responsibility for the entire family, making them work on the fields, reminding them of their dependence on generous benefactors and every day praying for them. Every year some 100 new faces joined entering a life of friendship and family happiness. Almost an equal number on completing 10 – 14 years of academic or technical formation entered society ready for jobs and a dignified life as citizens.

A second quality is his intense prayer life. He loved his daily Mass usually offered in honor of one or other Saint. Arriving suddenly you would find him praying the office, a source of spiritual nourishment which he treasured. With his family he recited daily the rosary with special intentions for benefactors. To this must be added his heroic poverty. His own room stacked with whatever his boys would need was the scene of total lack of comfort. All for the boys, nothing for oneself! This atmosphere of simplicity, dedication and warm family life attracted the many guests who not only visited Kishor Nagar, but stayed for days.

There is a third quality of his life, his unwavering trust in Divine Providence. Often I reminded him to care of the future, a successor, financial security. His reply was always, “Why worry? This is God’s work. All is in his hands. Even when Provincial Fr. L. Verstraete was concerned with the future of Kishor Nagar, Vic told me: “If tomorrow we have to close, I’ll not hesitate a moment.”

These three characteristics of Father Van Bortel, his immense love for young needy people, his solid spiritual life and heroic poverty, and above all his trust in God are the highlights of his life and work.

Kishor Nagar started in November 1969, his terminal sickness set in exactly on completing 40 years, November 2009. He no longer could take food and drink and felt utterly weak. In the hope of giving him proper care Father Provincial took him to Guru Nanak hospital, where he stayed for three weeks in intensive care. Repeatedly he begged to go back home, the luxury of the hospital he resented. Heeding finally his wish he was taken to our own hospital in Mandar where three days later in the evening of 18-01-2010 he breathed his last, eleven days short of completing 84 years of age.

For his burial, first planned in the Ranchi Cathedral, to facilitate attendance of his innumerous friends and
admirers, the Kishor Nagar boys, who refused to come to Ranchi, prevailed in having both Mass and burial in the midst of his family. It was a royal farewell. More than one thousand friends and companions with some old boys joined the numerous Kishor family. They themselves had prepared the full ceremony in details. The wide hall could not contain even half of the congregation. At the end of the mass lines of mourners paid their last respect, something Vic probably would have liked to avoid, like the many events of his life, such as jubilees which he radically refused to keep. As we came out of the hall cum chapel we were surprised to find another 1,000 people devoutly waiting around a gaping newly dug grave. One will never forget the touching scene when the coffin was lowered and so many wiped away a tear at the departure of truly beloved Fr. Victor Van Bortel.

There could have been no better place for his burial than at the heart of Kishor Nagar, here his memory will be kept alive by thousands of young men whom he had prepared for life in Society. Some two hundred former boys, who got the news late gathered for a special Mass on Sunday January 24. They pledged to come every year on the Sunday close to January 18, to thank the Lord for the precious gift to young people in the person of Fr. Victor Van Bortel.